Towards a better archive extractor interface

I have waited years and years for someone to make a general purpose archive extracting tool the way I can picture it. The requirements are limited to:

  1. Extracts all common archive formats (.tar.bz2, .zip, etc.)
    • This kind of goes without saying, but it doesn’t pedantically “extract” a .tar.bz2 into a .tar file (I’m looking at you 7-zip)
  2. Needs no flags or subcommands or other configuration for the common use case
  3. Never creates more than 1 top-level file or directory per archive file
  4. Doesn’t add an extra layer of directory nesting when the archive only contains a single top-level directory

It is those last 2 requirements that makes me feel like some sort of UX normal-wit in a land full of half-wits. Nobody likes extracting an archive in their Downloads directory and have it barf all these generic README/Makefile/LICENSE project files everywhere. So what is the alternative today? Always get in the habit of extracting to a subdirectory, even though it adds unnecessary nesting 90% of the time? Or get in the habit of always inspecting the archive contents prior to extracting them, which is an easily automatable task?

I am sure some tool capable of this already exists in some form somewhere. But I can’t find it, so I’m writing a blog post to popularize the idea. Feel free to let me know.

Here is my attempt at the platonic ideal of archive extractor interfaces:

❯ xt
Usage: xt ARCHIVE… [DEST]

No flags needed. It does what you think it should do (or at least what I think it should do). A two letter command name is allocated for such a common task.

One point of ambiguity is where to extract the archive: the directory that ARCHIVE is in? Or $PWD? I am pretty sure the latter is the unix-y interpretation, so that is what I went with.

For convenience, it supports multiple archive files in one go (what else would the interface use positional params for?). Trying it out in practice, I also found it convenient to be able to say, “extract this archive over there”, hence the DEST parameter. There is some ambiguity with the meaning of the DEST parameter: does it mean ignore the 1-top-level file/directory rule and explicitly extract all the contents into the DEST directory? Or does it mean extract like xt normally does (at most 1 top-level file/directory per archive) but do it into the DEST directory instead of $PWD? I opted for the latter, but that may be a mistake.

An open question is what the behavior should be when piped. I didn’t have any ideas, so I left the behavior undefined for now.

I have the sketch of an implementation over here:

I must stress sketch of an idea. Use it at your own risk. It isn’t mean to be a real project (yet), but a test bed for trying the idea.